Morris – an Introduction

2013-06-07 16.18.14

Tinners’ Morris at the ready!

There are some elements of any culture that cause embarrassment or difficulties when trying to translate them to people from other countries. I daresay some Scots find explaining why men wear kilts (and do or don’t wear anything beneath) as tricky, let alone the attraction of the noise of a series of pipes fed by a bladder which is itself inflated by another pipe. These things are not readily comprehensible.

In England we are ridiculously keen on all cultures. More English probably celebrate the Irish national day than even Chicagoans. Certainly more than there are Irish in Ireland. We celebrate the Welsh national day, and the Scottish. We have even started to celebrate American days, with Thanksgiving starting to make it across the pond. American football will arrive in the UK this year, I learn, and of course so many cultural aspects of American life are already here: McDonald’s, Starbucks, Amazon and Apple. All have been enthusiastically taken up by the English.

Which is why it is so ironic that the one nation whose culture and history are not supported or celebrated is England’s own.

Dancing with iron bars

Dancing with iron bars

After the Second World War, we suffered. Russian managed to infiltrate the country with the ambition of emasculating America’s strongest ally. They had spies throughout the government and Secret Service. They had Marxist and communist-leaning friends arguing for pro-Russian, anti-nuclear groups in government. Many politicians and Union leaders took money from Russia, and these promoted Russian ideals. Russia believed that controlling education was important. Which was great. Gain control of teaching teachers, and you can control what all children are taught for the future. Once you manage to persuade government to bring about a national curriculum in which all subjects can be centrally controlled, you also control how the nation can think, can react, can develop. Teaching in England became rigorously standardised, so that all teacher training became centrally coordinated.

At the same time teaching English culture pretty much ceased. All aspects of English culture were clearly militaristic and dangerous. There was a strong belief in many circles that any teaching about the empire that did not show how brutal, cruel and unjust the empire was, must be seriously flawed. Thus there could be no positive balances to the long story of slaughter and theft. Every aspect of the Empire was bad, therefore English culture was evil because it led to the Empire.

During the last Labour government an MP managed to raise a cheer in his support, when he said that his vision of hell was two folk singers in a pub near Wells. Sadly that’s all too common a view in Westminster circles. It’s a mark of political maturity to sneer at the culture that gave them their jobs. Still, it gave us the song “Roots” by the superb Show of Hands, so perhaps it was worth it!

But in the face of all the negativity from the metropolitan elites, and perhaps largely in spite of them, Morris dancing and other aspects of English culture are flourishing.

What is Morris?

It is hard to explain. Morris is ancient, certainly. Some believe that Morris dancing is all based on devil worship (a friend of one brother will not see me because of this conviction).

No. It isn’t. If Morris dancers have any religion or belief it is in the curative effects of large quantities of ale and beer.

It is not from Druidic times (at least, there’s nothing to suggest it). The earliest Morris outfit was found in the Tower of London and dated from about 1400. Some have suggested that it’s a dance form based on “Moorish” dancing, and that Crusaders brought it back from the Holy Land after seeing Moors dancing around camp fires. They thought that the ability of Moors to fight to the beat of a drum, entire regiments turning and obeying a drumbeat, led to enterprising knights bringing the concept home. Again, there’s nothing to support this, although it’s possible – but personally I think Christians would also have danced around their camp fires. They didn’t need to watch their enemies.

Certainly, Morris dancers were known in medieval times, but by Victorian times they had become a local sight. Peasants in certain areas would dress up and dance all around their parish and beyond in the hope of earning some money. During the winter and when food was scarce, it was a way to keep the family fed. Some would play pipes, some the drum, and often these dancers would get into fights with other Morris teams who encroached on their territory.

Mike Palmer in his element

Mike Palmer in his element

Late in the 1800s, Melodeons and accordions appeared and Morris sides accepted them eagerly. They danced, interestingly, with different traditions all over England. Some from the Welsh borders blacked up their faces – not because of racism, but because many sides were formed of men involved in mining – and they tended to dance with heavy boots in an aggressive fashion. These forms became Border Morris and Molly Dancing. There are many excellent Border sides still (not many Mollys, though).

Other traditions came from the Cotswolds and elsewhere, but these tended to involve white clothes, with waistcoats or sashes, and the emphasis always being on colour and spectacle. After all, the key to Morris is still that it entertains.

But, a catastrophe hit Morris, like so many other aspects of English life.

I used to be club secretary to a pleasant pistol club in Caterham for five years. One day I idly leafed through some old membership lists, and I discovered that on one day, three quarters of that club died. It was the first day of the Somme. Like many other gun clubs, on the onset of war, all the membership joined the army as one unit, and after basic training, their first battle was that field of slaughter. Few of the men survived the war. From memory we lost nine tenths of the membership of the club during the First war, and the same devastation was wreaked on clubs and societies all over the country.

Morris dancers were as patriotic as any of the gun clubs. They too were slaughtered. After the First World War, there were no young men to take up the dances. In vast swathes of the country, no one knew the dance traditions. The knowledge was buried in the mud in Flanders. So most Morris sides died out. Their uniforms were lost, their dances and their own particular style were forgotten. Since none of the sides had written down their dances or even their music, all was lost.

One thing made Morris survive. An English eccentric, Cecil Sharp, and some others, had recorded some Morris dances and the music in the early Edwardian period. These notes and records began to be rediscovered, and at last Morris began to develop again. Researchers found long-forgotten tunes, old dance-steps, old dances, and taught them to new dancers.

Now we have more Morris dancers than ever before, and the Morris Federation is thriving. From personal experience, Morris is always popular outside any pub (and sometimes inside as well, when the weather’s not good).

For me, Morris harks back to ancient customs and traditions. It is fun. More crucially, it’s a damn hard workout! Every Sunday it involves me dancing on tip-toes for two hours. That takes stamina, as my legs testify every Sunday afternoon. However, it’s also an intensely social form of dance. It is enormous fun.

So, Morris is fun, it’s good exercise, it’s exciting to watch (especially when we dance with iron bars) and it’s hugely entertaining. What’s not to like?

I should just say, that there are men’s, women’s and mixed Morris sides. My own, Tinner’s Morris, was formed largely because the husbands of the local ladies’ side (Cogs and Wheels) got fed up with ferrying their wives around to have fun. So, if you are interested in the idea of Morris, check where your local side is based, and go and see what you think. It’s strenuous, but worth it. And usually you’ll be paid in beer for dancing at a pub!

Cogs and Wheels Morris ladies men at the ready - Royal Cornwall Show.

Cogs and Wheels Morris ladies men at the ready – Royal Cornwall Show.

9 Responses to “Morris – an Introduction”
  1. Me Too says:

    Well written with historical and cultural insights that are too easily overlooked … while texting. Good for you, Michael!


  2. MoldiOldi says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article on Morris dancing, including the background. I had heard of it and watched some of it on It looks like great exercise and a great deal of fun. I am a fan of all forms of dancing.


  3. Tess says:

    Those photos look so *warm* and *summery* …


  4. MoldiOldi says:

    I also liked what you had to say about the Welsh form of Morris Dancing. My ancestors from Wales, Tom and Margaret Jones, came to the US in 1629, when they were both 19. In 1648, at the age of 39, Margaret Jones was the first woman of record to be hanged in the colonies for witchcraft. She was known for her healing, which was enough to throw her under suspicion. This was well before the infamous Salem witchcraft trials. We, her descendants, are still pretty sore about that. Unfortunately, the published genealogy of the family starts at that point. We wish we knew more about the family in Wales.


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